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Preview – Modifying the AK-74

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Photos by Mark Kuczka and Carmen Lout

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As beautiful as the English language can be, sometimes words fail us. In some cases, it’s not the fault of our vocabulary. The few words that are reserved for special occasions get overused, and over time, lose the effectiveness of their meanings. Such is the occasion when trying to describe Mikhail Kalashnikov’s Avtomat Kalashnikova, model of 1947, commonly known as the AK-47.

Words like legendary, revolutionary, and iconic are so regularly associated with the AK that they lose their potency, doing a disservice to the worthy recipient. Yet, despite such high praise, the AK rifle has only gained a small foothold of acceptance on American soil. Like a boxer past his prime, is it time for this legend to quietly slip into retirement?

The history and development of the AK rifle is a long and well-documented story, but 1974 was a particularly important year for the AK-pattern rifle. During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese captured examples of the new American M16 rifles and 5.56x45mm ammunition. It didn’t take long for the North Vietnamese to pass along the captured material to their Russian comrades for examination and testing. Once the Russians realized the full tactical and terminal potential of lightweight bullets driven at high velocities, it didn’t take the Russian design bureau long to develop their own equivalent cartridge.

In short order, the 5.45x39mm cartridge was born. But the new cartridge wasn’t the only improvement to the new rifle. The new AK-74 would feature a radical (for the time) muzzle brake to reduce recoil and improve accuracy when firing in the fully automatic mode. The Russians have always appreciated compensators and muzzle brakes on their weapons, dating back to the 1930s. Two of the best World War II submachine guns, the PPSh-41 and the PPS-43, both used integral muzzle brakes.

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So when the AK-74 made its debut during the Soviet May Day military parade, it didn’t take Western observers long to identify the new service rifle by its recoil-reducing muzzle brake and a new-style magazine whose slightly less angular profile betrayed the secret of its new caliber. Several variants of the AK-74 were developed, including a folding-stock version designated the AKS-74 and the very compact AKS-74U, an example of which notoriously accompanied Osama bin Laden everywhere he went.

During the mid ’90s, in an attempt to attract foreign sales, the AK 100 series of rifles were introduced. The entire AK series was upgraded with new polymer furniture, side-folding stocks, receiver-mounted rails for the attachment of various optics and lasers, and a new corrosion-resistant black finish. Additionally, a 5.56×45 NATO caliber version of the AK was introduced alongside the standard Russian calibers of 7.62x39mm and 5.45x39mm.

Rifles were offered in a compact version featuring a 12-inch barrel or a standard version with a 16-inch barrel. All of the rifles were renumbered as the AK-101 through the AK-105, but interestingly enough, the numerical designation of the standard AK-74 was not changed to a 100 series number. It was simply redesignated the AK-74M (with “M” being the Russian abbreviation for Modernized).

While the AK has set the standard for reliability, ruggedness, and dependability, it has also earned several dubious accolades. Haters cite several design faults overshadowing the AK to such a degree so as to make it nothing more than a Cold War relic that can no longer effectively compete with modern-day rifles like the M4/AR-15 series. Which is ironic, given the M4 is almost eligible for Social Security.

The list of gripes is long, but not entirely unjustified. For example, the sights are small and require special tools to properly zero. The safety selector is just plain odd in both location and operation. The trigger pull is heavy, mushy, and has a tendency to slap back against the operator’s trigger finger during the firing cycle, which starts off being annoying and eventually becomes downright painful.

The pistol grip and foregrip are freakishly small, it has no (or inadequate) provisions for the attachment of lights or lasers, and typical accuracy is usually good enough to hit the broad side of a barn. Barely. When compared to a modern-day M4 rifle, the original AK-74 rifle is lacking in a serious way, but is this really a valid comparison? Is it really fair to compare the capabilities of a modern day M4 loaded with all the newest technology available against a stock AK-74? Maybe it’s time to even out this fight by giving the Cold War warrior a modern retrofit.

In order to give the AK-74 a fighting chance, I selected an old parts kit AK-74 built by a well-known AK builder that I had sitting around as the basis for the retrofit. Based upon the commonly cited “problems” with AK rifles, four areas were targeted for upgrades and improvements.


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